Many of you will be familiar with the common health indicators. Blood pressure, BMI, your weight, your waistline, your cholesterol levels and so on. But what if I told you that the number one indicator of your risk of mortality as you age wasn’t any of those things… It’s leg strength.
Leg strength has been proven to be the most significant indicator of your overall health and risk of mortality, having a higher impact on determining when you will die than even your VO2 max, total lean muscle mass and all of the aforementioned. It was found to be even more significant than if you had had a previous heart attack or stroke.
So why is it so important?
Leg strength is essential in many ways. Firstly it is a great way to be able to assess heart health. The common thought process would tie heart health with cardiovascular exercise, until you realize that every form of movement and exercise involves your heart and lungs… Any way it is a great indicator of heart health in 3 ways. First off when performing heavy squats, dead lifts or leg presses with weights that are above or equal to 30% of you 1 rep max for that lift, blood flow completely occludes in the working muscles. This is caused by a mix of blood pressure rise and muscle contraction force. It will reach such high levels that it actually thickens and stops blood flow momentarily. So if we scale back for a second and consider the effect this has. Imagine that for your body, ever time you sat down, or stood up, it felt as hard on your body as performing a 1 rep max squat. Or that climbing the stairs was equivalent to do some seriously heavy walking lunges. Imagine how hard your heart is having to work to provide blood flow with that level heightened stress on the entire system with each movement. All because your legs are simply not strong enough for you to carry out basic human movements. Forcing the heart to work harder and harder. So to come back to leg strength, as you age the amount of muscle mass in your legs is not overly important, but rather the quality and strength of those muscles in order to help you move without causing severe stress on the heart and circulatory system. Which could lead to serious health issues such as a heart attack.
Leg strength also is a crucial aid to your balance and core strength. The speed and strength with which you can contact your muscles will ultimately determine how much of a fall risk you are. Without strong core and leg muscles you will be likely to stumble, fall or fail to catch yours leg should you trip. All of this leads to increased risk of injury and especially in elderly people this risk is a big part of mortality. Broken bones, especially involving knees, legs or hips are very often precursors to periods of ill health or big drops on their mobility, strength and cognitive skills that leads to rapid detonation of health all over. Another reason strength and balance are important is that it allows you to continue to move and live through other injuries and illnesses such as broken arms, minor infections and illnesses. Being able to get up and move, take a walk in the fresh air, carry out your daily activities means that you retain all of your cognitive skills and that you maintain quality levels of muscle mass in your core and legs that leads us on to the next point.
Having strong legs is often a sign of having higher levels of quality muscle mass. This not only plays a vital part in controlling your metabolism and overall strength but recent research suggests that muscle isn’t as one way in its actions as first believed. We used to think that muscle was stupid, and that it only did what it was told because of the nervous system stimulating it to do so. Now it is believed that muscle is actually the largest endocrine organ in the body, responsible for helping to control things like blood sugar, metabolism and assisting the control of inflammation. All of these things can seriously affect your health. For example if you cannot control your blood sugar levels then you are at risk of toxic sugar levels in the blood or becoming diabetic. If you cannot control your metabolism you will gain excessive body fat and visceral fat and we already know the impact of that on our health. So extra muscle mass, especially functional quality muscle mass is key to maintaining and improving your health as you age.
Another way in which leg strength affects your health is that it allows you to improve and maintain your mobility, if you are strong enough to get up and move around then you can maintain your general mobility and thus prevent excessive muscular atrophy and maintain sufficient joint and spinal health. In this way you can be more assured of getting exercise in daily and reduce the effects of sedentary lifestyles and reduce he risk of developing spinal injuries or issues in later life.
It has even been shown that increasing leg strength in people over 70 years old, increases their spontaneous activity levels exponentially. Leading to increased general activity and exercise, and leading to increased enjoyment of life as they can now do all of the things they wanted to do. Go to the shops, visit friends and family, dance, walk, and generally move around and live. Meaning that their lives are not only more active and healthy physically, but mentally too.
So if those reasons were not enough to convince you to add some leg training to your programming then you should look up research from Dr. Andy Galpin – Human Bioenergetics and Muscle Physiologist at California State University Fullerton, and Dr. John Myers at Stanford University. They are always looking into strength, muscle and health.
Want to see more? Check out our grip strength article and see how your grip is just as important as leg strength: